Saturday, October 8, 2011

Ile Flottante

First published Canberra Times 5 October 2011. It’s a baking hot day in the town of Epfig, Alsace, where the thick crowds thread their way through the festively decorated streets celebrating the spring flea market. Brocante markets are huge in France at this time of year, as people save up their second hand wares through the lengthy winter to set up a stall in their local village at the beginning of spring.  These numbers are boosted by a caravan of purveyors that you encounter at every market, every weekend, across the region.

We are told it’s unusually hot today and this is the first market of the year in Epfig, about 30kms from Strasbourg, where the locals have gathered up from surrounding farms to join the villagers, proudly displaying their precious wares. This market, as with any other of the street markets that rotate through the Alsatian villages in spring, boasts a mouth watering selection of fresh vegetables, bread, cheeses, meats and preserves. Tacky second hand wares jostle with brocante of real interest, in displays that can include anything from clothes to kitchenalia, war memorabilia, ancient bicycles, bad art or kitsch. It can be still in its shrink wrap, antique or just pre-loved.

These markets are taken very seriously, with shoppers appearing in their thousands, parking precariously on the edge of the village, intensely focused on scooping up that killer bargain.

I’m no different, and stroll slowly along the cobbled Epfig streets, scanning both sides for just the right bargains to take home. From mums, dads and kids to the slick antique dealers, the displays of infinite variety extend out of sight down every street and round every corner. It’s taking all my powers of self-restraint to avoid from indulging at every second stall.

An old metal chocolate mould takes my eye on a stall where two grey haired gentlemen are sitting on boxes in the shade and wearing overalls held up with braces. They are selling some items for a friend who has just closed his Patisserie after many years. It’s hard not to detect my keen interest and they bring out extra pieces from their ancient looking truck. They show me old ceramic moulds, metal cake and bread pans, an array of chocolate moulds in a variety of bird shapes and utensils of all description all caked with layers of flour.

I know we’ve only got limited space in our shipping tea chests, so I’m careful to select only the extra special items. We haggle over price and they throw in extras, and more extras, until I can’t possibly carry any more and have to refuse things that you would die to get your hands on back in Australia.

Brocante-ing is thirsty and hungry work so, flushed and heavily laden, we seize one of the last tables under an umbrella at the only available watering hole in Epfig, a half-timbered Winestub. The waitresses, cheeks glowing from the heat, make futile attempts to manage the influx of customers who are escaping the midday sun. The staff are overwhelmed by this invasion, but no one really seems to mind, realising that this once-a-year phenomenon is part of the package and as long as you can get a beer, all is well.  The menu lists the obligatory salads, foie gras, pork knuckle and a range of desserts. What really captures me here is the Ile Flottante, a light cloud of meringue floating in a sea of cool crème anglaise.  The waitress winks knowingly at my order and indicates she’ll be right back.

Although, not often seen in Australian restaurants, French women of a certain generation can whip this dessert up with their eyes closed. It’s no surprise this French classic is a hot little number, as it can be eaten warm or icy cold and still appears on many Bistro menus in France. Our chilled island of meringue was served slightly scorched with a blowtorch, a swirl of caramel and topped with shards of gingered praline.  This quantity makes 6 individual servings.

Caramel sauce and praline 
1 ½  cups caster sugar 
½ tspn vanilla extract 
60g sliced almonds


8 eggwhites at room temperature
1/8  tspn salt 
¼ tspn cream of tartar 
1 cup caster sugar 
½ tspn vanilla paste

Creme anglaise
1 cup pouring cream 
½ tspn vanilla paste
4 egg yolks 
¼ cup caster sugar

To make the caramel sauce, combine the sugar and ½ cup water in a pan. Cook over low heat until sugar dissolves. Raise heat to moderate, and cook, without disturbing and swirling the pan, until caramel-coloured. Swirl again, and remove from heat. Stir in ½ cup of water and the vanilla, being careful as it may spit. Cook over high heat, stirring, until the caramel is golden brown, this should take about 5 minutes, or until it registers 230F (118C) on a candy thermometer. Keep warm.

To make praline, preheat the oven to 180C. Line a baking tray with baking paper. Combine ¼ cup caramel sauce with the almonds, then spread onto a baking sheet. Bake for 10-12 minutes. When cool, break into pieces.

Lower oven temperature to 120C and line 2 baking sheets with baking paper.

To make the meringues, beat the eggwhites with salt and cream of tartar until frothy. Add 1 cup of sugar gradually, beating at high speed until stiff and glossy. Whisk in the vanilla. Spoon large mounds, about the amount of 2 dessertspoo
ns, on the prepared trays and bake for 20 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean.

To make the creme anglaise, gently bring the cream to a boil in a pan. Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla. Beat the egg yolks with sugar until pale. Pour in a little of the hot cream and stir to combine, then pour the egg mixture into the pan with the rest of the cream. Using a wooden spoon, stir over low heat for 3 minutes, or until mixture coats the back of the spoon.

To serve, pour the cooled cream into bowls, top with a meringue, drizzle with caramel sauce and top  with shards of praline.

If you are using a fan forced oven, you may need to reduce the temperatures slightly. Photos by Steve Shanahan

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